Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad Dawkins Subdivision

The 36-mile Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad (C&O) Dawkins Subdivision is a former branch line from Dawkins to Evanston, Kentucky.


The Dawkins Subdivision of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) was named after the Dawkins Lumber Company. In 1912, Dawkins Lumber incorporated the Big Sandy & Kentucky River Railroad (BS&KR) to build a 31-mile track in Breathitt County and gain access to timberlands. 3 6 7 8 The first segment of the BS&KR, between West Van Lear and Riceville, was completed in 1913, and Riceville became the headquarters until 1920. The BS&KR had four locomotives, one passenger car, a combine, three flatcars, and three cabooses. 7 In 1919-21, the railroad was extended to Carver, which included the construction of the 662-foot Ivyton/Gun Creek Tunnel at Ivyton. 6

To extend the BS&KR into the coalfields of Breathitt County, the company moved its offices to Royalton and built various facilities, such as a wye, black oil tank, steel sanding tower, and fuel and water hose mounts. 3 6 7 The roster was expanded with a derrick and dump car.

However, due to the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression, the BS&KR went bankrupt. 7 The 24.2-mile line was acquired by the C&O and leased to the BS&KR on September 20, 1930, leading to the C&O acquiring the BS&KR on December 19, 1933. This acquisition resulted in the branch being called the Dawkins Subdivision. 6


The C&O began planning a 15½ mile extension from Carter to a proposed coal camp and tipple in Vail in Breathitt County in September 1943. 7 Construction started on September 21, 1948, which involved boring the 1,555-foot 3 6/1,840-foot 7 Carver /Tiptop Tunnel. Codell Construction Company conducted grading and drainage, and a small diesel servicing facility was built at Royalton. 10 The extension to Vail, named after Herman Vail, an Island Creek Coal Company director, was completed on September 15, 1951. 7 8

Before the completion of the extension, the Dawkins Subdivision only serviced two active coal mines, producing less than 400 cars per month in 1940. 8 However, by 1953, seven active mines on the branch produced more than 2,000 cars a month, with over 75% of the tonnage coming from the Pond Creek Pocahontas Coal Company (a subsidiary of Island Creek Coal Company) No. 3 Elkhorn mine in Vail and the Skyline Preparation Plant near Evanston operated by United Electric Coal Company (a subsidiary of Island Creek Coal Company) which strip-mined from nearby mountains. 8 9 The company utilized a large Bucyrus-Erie shovel, the “Star Knocker,” to strip overburden from nearby hills for coal around Evanston. By the late 1970s, the Marty Corporation operated Skyline, followed by Utal Internation’s Sierra Coal and Consolidation Coal.

The Island Creek Coal Company No. 3 Elkhorn tipple at Vail closed in 1975 and was demolished in the early 1980s, causing the abandonment of the last three miles of the Dawkins Subdivision. 8

By October 1977, the branch was producing 160 to 175 fifty-ton cars daily from ten mines, 10 and for May 1980, the line was servicing 15 mines producing 194 fifty-ton cars daily. 8 In May 1990, only three loading points produced about 80 fifty-ton cars daily; of that, 93% were loaded at the Skyline Preparation Plant.

As of May 1991, the Sun Valley tipple at Hagerhill near its terminus in Dawkins was working sporadically due to orders of Highland Coal sales and was shipping less than 100 cars per month. 8 At Royalton, Magoffin Coal and the Michael-Shane tipples were sporadically active. Wolverine Mining’s Hickory tipple shut down in the winter of 1990 when parent Costain Coal moved equipment to an operation in Pike County. In 1992, the branch between Evanston and Vail was dismantled. 11

Movements over the Dawkins Subdivision slowly dwindled, partly by the closure of rail-served tipples and by the decision from shippers to truck coal to docks along the Big Sandy River near Catlettsburg. 8 The promotion of unit coal train service, which offered better rates, led to the elimination of smaller, less efficient rail operators. 11 As a result, the number of loading points in the Big Sandy District of the C&O decreased from 80 in 1983 to just 30 in 1993. More than 80% of coal transportation in the district was done through unit trains.

In 2000, the branch line was closed by C&O’s successor, CSXT, to revenue traffic due to needed repairs. 1 In 2002, the R.J. Corman Company acquired the 36.13-mile Dawkins Subdivision between Dawkins and Evanston from CSXT and started interchanging with CSXT at Paintsville on February 4. 1 3

The Skyline Preparation Plant was one of the remaining customers on the line, and coal was transported to the facility by truck and then sent to RJ for movement to Paintsville. However, due to needed repairs on the rail line, RJ ceased operations in 2003 4 and filed to abandon the Dawkins Subdivision on November 6, 2004. 2 3

Dawkins Line Rail Trail

The Dawkins Subdivision was railbanked by the Kentucky Rails to Trails Council in preparation for its conversion into a rail trail. 4 This project was expected to cost $2.1 million. In May 2011, 6 the state purchased the branch for $500,000 using funds that had been appropriated by the General Assembly in 2006. 5 6 Additionally, $2 million was obtained from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet and $500,000 from coal severance funds to fund the project.

Only ten landowners who lived along the route expressed opposition to the rail trail. 4 They claimed that the trail would reduce property values and increase crime. These landowners also alleged that the state had “stolen” their property.

The first 18½ miles of the Dawkins Line Rail Trail was opened on June 15, 2013. 4 6 9 As of 2023, the trail is 36 miles long, extending from Evanston in Breathitt County to Hagerhill in Johnson County. The only incomplete section of the trail is the Tip Top Tunnel.

Skyline Preparation Plant


Further Reading

  1. Dawkins Line Rail Trail


  1. Pleasant, Bryan and Ron Stafford. “Dawkins Sub acquired by Corman.” Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Magazine Mar 2002: 3. Print.
  2. “Proposed railroad abandonments.” 2004. 10 Nov. 2009 Listing.
  3. Big Lovely Mountain Trail Feasibility Report. N. pag. Summit Engineering, Inc., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2009. Report.
  4. Stambaugh, Carrie. “Rail-trail plans on track, state officials say.” Independent [Ashland] 4 Sept. 2011: n. pag. Independent Online. Web. 8 Sept. 2011. Article.
  5. “Gov. Beshear, First Lady announce latest adventure tourism attraction in Eastern Kentucky.” Commonwealth of Kentucky, 9 Aug. 2011. Web. 8 Sept. 2011. Article.
  6. Stambaugh, Carrie. “Abandoned rail could again help fuel parts of eastern Kentucky.” Independent [Ashland] 30 Aug. 2011: n. pag. Independent Online. Web. 8 Sept. 2011. Article.
  7. Huddleston, Eugene L. “Via Mixed Train Through Eastern Kentucky.” Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Magazine Apr. 1991: 2-9. Print.
  8. Young, Everett N. “Days on the Dawkins.” Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Magazine Apr. 1991: 10-14. Print.
  9. Lynch, Jake. “Rural Kentucky Primed for the Opening of the Dawkins Line Rail Trail.” Rails to Trails Conservancy, 30 May 2013. Web. 12 June 2013. Article.
  10. Young, Everett N. “An Operational Look at the Big Sandy.” The Chesapeake & Ohio Historical Newsletter, Oct. 1977, p. 9.
  11. Young, Everett N. “The Big Sandy Subdivision.” Chesapeake and Ohio Historical Magazine, Oct 1993: 16. Print.


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[…] The Dawkins Subdivision of the Chesapeake & Ohio was originally called the Big Sandy & Kentucky River Railroad, built in 1912 by the Dawkins Lumber Company to access their timberlands with a 31-mile track. The first section from West Van Lear and Riceville was completed in 1913, and an extension to Carver opened in 1921. One of the major achievements of the line was the construction of the Ivyton/Gun Creek Tunnel, which was 662 feet long. […]

Dawkins Subdivision Blog

Where can I obtain a location list of the R/R bridges and tressels for the 36 miles of this line? Approximately 100 years ago, my grandfather joined the parent company, Dawkins Lumber Company, as a master R/R bridge builder. He retained this position until the mill went out of business in 1929/1930 time frame. Since many of the structures are in a state of disrepair due to age, I would like to photograph those still standing as a rememberance to my grandfather. Any help that you can provide will be appreciated.

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